Psychology Phenomena {47} ~ Peltzman Effect

The reduction of predicted benefit from regulations that intend to increase safety is sometimes referred to as the Peltzman effect in recognition of Sam Peltzman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who published “The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation” in the Journal of Political Economy in 1975 in which he controversially suggested that “offsets (due to risk compensation) are virtually complete, so that regulation has not decreased highway deaths”. Peltzman claimed to originate this theory in the 1970s but it was used to oppose the requirement of safety equipment on trains in the Nineteenth Century (Adams 1879). A reanalysis of his original data found numerous errors and his model failed to predict fatality rates before regulation (Robertson 1977). According to Peltzman, regulation was at best useless, at worst counterproductive. Peltzman found that the level of risk compensation in response to highway safety regulations was complete in original study. But “Peltzman’s theory does not predict the magnitude of risk compensatory behaviour.” Substantial further empirical work has found that the effect exists in many contexts but generally offsets less than half of the direct effect. In the U.S., motor vehicle fatalities per population declined by more than half from the beginning of regulation in the 1960s through 2012. Vehicle safety standards accounted for most of the reduction augmented by seat belt use laws, changes in the minimum drinking age, and reductions in teen driving (Robertson 2015).

The Peltzman effect can also result in a redistributing effect where the consequences of risky behaviour are increasingly felt by innocent parties (see moral hazard). By way of example, if a risk-tolerant driver responds to driver-safety interventions, such as compulsory seat belts, crumple zones, ABS etc. by driving faster with less attention, then this can result in increases in injuries and deaths to pedestrians.

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